Christopher Walker reviews Nye at the National Theatre

By Christopher Walker

It is often suggested that the British people have lost their religious faith. But this is untrue. There is a state sponsored religion – it’s the NHS.

Hence the National Theatre’s big set piece this Spring is Nye by Tim Price. Nye was the affectionate nickname given to Aneurin Bevan the founder of the NHS.

I approached this production fearing we might be treated to the kind of Stalinistic state propaganda that abounds in less free countries.

However, I have to confess that I was wrong to be nervous. Tim Price has crafted a very interesting biographical study that is highly successful, especially thanks to the outstanding performance of Michael Sheen in the title role.

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan and Sharon Small as Jennie Lee in Nye at the National Theatre (Picture: Johan Persson)

For those who are not familiar with Bevan’s career, this play informs. He grew up in extreme poverty in a mining family in South Wales, and inevitably became highly politicised. This in turn led on to involvement in local politics which eventually progressed to a parliamentary seat and a pivotal role in the post war Labour government.

It is a tribute to Tim Price’s honesty that whilst he clearly eulogises Bevan, he does not shy away from exploring some of his failings. Not least his open marriage with firebrand Jenny Lee, an even more left-wing Scottish politician played here by Sharon Small.

As well as his almost treacherous opposition to Winston Churchill (beautifully captured by Tony Jayawardena in this production). There should be little doubt that if Bevan had succeeded in his many no confidence motions in Winston Churchill we would not be seeing this play today, nor would I be able to write about it.

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan in Nye at the National Theatre (Picture: Johan Persson)

There are many highly impressive production touches as you would expect from the National Theatre, including some unbelievably adaptable hospital beds, great videos,  and a roving desk at No. 10 Downing St in the hands of Stephanie Jacob playing Clement Atlee.

All in all, a reminder of how our national religion came about. Though no attempt to address the opposition health secretary Wes Streeting’s reminder that the NHS is “a service not a shrine.”

Pictured top: Tony Jayawardena as Winston Churchill and Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan, in Nye at the National Theatre (Picture: Johan Persson)

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